The Arbor Christmas Show: Spreading Christmas spirit and a sense of community in South Jersey

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Photo by Mark Martucci | markmartucciphoto.com
The Arbor Christmas Show cast performs at the Audubon Auction House in 2012 | Photo by Mark Martucci | markmartucciphoto.com

The show was Jon’s idea.

That’s what Mike Maier writes, first and foremost, about the annual Arbor Christmas Show on the event’s website, and it’s the first thing he says when asked about it.

It was his idea, so Maier helped his friend Jon Montague put that first show on 15 years ago. They’d worked on other things together in the past, and were both fans of sketch comedy in the vein of  “The Kids in the Hall” and “Monty Python.” They wanted Arbor Christmas to be like a variety show or Christmas special you’d see on TV, but feature their friends, most of whom were accomplished musicians who lived in South Jersey.

“Jon was a big supporter of that,” Maier says of his friend and the local scene. “He started Arbor Records as a record label, and put stuff out for bands, like [his brother] Adam’s band and other bands that were in the area. The Christmas show was sort of an offshoot of that. Years later, the only thing that has really survived of that is the Christmas show. But it’s really kind of a whole picture thing that Jon had, and he wanted to do for the music scene.”

“The first year was fun but it was kind of strange for me,” recalls Jon’s brother Adam Montague. “Jon and Mike organized a lot of it and I was playing in a band at the time, so they said, ‘Hey we’re putting on a Christmas show, so be a part of it,’ and we were up for that. It wasn’t until pretty shortly before – I just assumed we were going to come play a full set – that we found out we’d only be playing two songs that we’d either have to write or do Christmas covers, and there was going to be a script and a play. So I was a little confused the first year leading up to it, but as we saw it pan out it was something unique and different than what we had been doing locally.”

Photo by Mark Martucci | markmartucciphoto.com
Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It. at the 2012 Arbor Christmas Show | Photo by Mark Martucci | markmartucciphoto.com

The Arbor Christmas show has become an anticipated seasonal event for the insular, yet thriving alternative music scene in South Jersey. With the help of Steve Poponi and Dave Downham of Gradwell House Recording in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, an annual compilation albums also accompanies the festivities, which over the years has featured tracks from bands likes By Surprise, Young Statues, The Classic Brown and Into It. Over It.

The show was Jon’s idea, but he wasn’t able to see what it’s come to mean to his family and friends over the past 15 years. He passed away from GIST, a cancer of the GI track, shortly after the second Arbor Christmas show.

“People came up to me at the funeral and said, ‘We’re still doing the Christmas show, right?’” says Maier. “They approached me then, that early, so I had to promise people at that early of a point that it was something we would still do. We wanted to do it in his honor and it was something that we all enjoyed doing.”

“Everybody was on the same page that it was something that should live on, and a great way to remember Jon,” adds Adam Montague. “It’s just really cool because right before and right after every year – it sounds corny – but I get this really good feeling that we’re staying connected, in a way.”

Though Jon’s initial vision for the show was something more wholesome and family-oriented, the script each year has moved toward the more topical and comical. By year two, and even though he was sick, Maier and Adam Montague fondly remember Jon dancing to Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U.”

Arbor Christmas
Arbor Christmas founder Jon Montague (center) with Jeff Mott, Jeff Muckensturm (peeking his head in) and Dave Downham (L-R) | via dinerstate.net

“The last show we did with Jon will always be my favorite,” adds Brian Mietz, who has also been involved since the beginning, and formerly played in the band Hoggle’s Jewelry with Adam Montague. “It’s one of the last times all of us as a group got together before he passed away.”

In 2005, the script was built on the idea that Christmas was going to be cancelled because of a storm, and made specific parallels to Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, following the release of the Mitchell Report, the script followed Santa when he was banned from Christmas due to a similar predicament.

“We try to come very close to the line without crossing it because we know it’s a Christmas show and a family show,” Maier says.

The core planning group talks about the show throughout the year, with the script theme changing dozens of times before they land on something. They’ll start having weekly meetings beginning in November, and then twice a week as they get closer to the show.

“A lot of this done at the end, and it kind of becomes a mad dash to get ready,” says Adam Montague. “Each year it’s almost comical about how every year we start talking to each other saying, ‘Alright, we’ve got to start earlier this year. We really need to be prepared. We need to have the story and the script finalized weeks in advance so that we can have weeks of practice.’”

Though the night of the show is always worth it, Mietz agrees that, with each year that passes, planning the show gets more and more stressful.

“I love my friends and I love when we’re all in one place having a good time together, but the amount of time put into planning the show, making calls to rent a hall, writing songs, editing video, writing a script and whatever else needs to get done, all of that combined with the normal everyday stuff you have going on makes you insane,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine not doing the show at this point. Almost half of my Christmases have had an Arbor Christmas Show preceding them.”

It's A King Thing | Photo by John Vettese
It’s A King Thing recording in Gradwell House studio | Photo by John Vettese

The amount of work doesn’t escape Poponi and Downham, co-owners of Gradwell House Recording, when it comes to recording the compilation. Though they try to get it done as fast and efficiently as possible, that means putting in marathon seven- or eight-hour recording sessions, with bands coming in and out on intervals.

Downham has also been involved with the show since its second year, performing in the band Ages. He ran an analog studio in his basement at the time that Jon, as a fan of Downham’s band The Secession Movement, asked him to help out. Over the years, Downham has recorded many of the bands involved with the show’s early years – most of who have broken up or fractured off.

He describes the Arbor Christmas Show as “basically like an 8th grade play.”

“Really what the whole thing comes down to is that there’s an insane amount of stuff that gets done in about two and a half weeks, with those guys writing a script, they put together videos, they rehearse, everybody writes songs and everybody records songs, we put everything together and I have to master it,” he says. “So it’s kind of this stupid stressful thing for everybody for very little reason, other than community.”

But that sense of community has helped the Arbor Christmas show maintain a gravitational pull amongst South Jersey musicians wanting to become involved, even though they weren’t part of the core group that started the tradition. It’s what’s grown the annual compilation from the three or four bands participating in the show to the 13 or 14 who have contributed songs for the past few years.

Tom Ryan, bassist for Young Statues, has contributed about 20 songs to the compilation amongst six different bands, as well as performed in the show.

“I was in absolute awe of what they had going on,” Ryan says of the time before getting involved himself five years ago. “While I never knew Jon, through his friends and family I always feel welcomed to play a role in Arbor Christmas every year and am always happy to carry on the tradition. … Seeing the growing success of the show and album every year is such a happy and positive nod to the fact that we are consistently growing as a music family. I use that word a lot because that’s how I really feel about all these people I get the honor to play music with.”

Dan Saraceni, bassist and vocalist for By Surprise and multi-instrumentalist for his solo project The Only Ghost in Town, attended his first Arbor Christmas Show in 2008 as a spectator and has been involved with the compilation ever since.

“I think everyone involved in running the show and compilation are really committed to the whole thing and they’re very inclusive of friends and family, spanning multiple age groups,” he says. “The show is a nice way for everyone to get together, enjoy a good comedic show mixed with live music and food. It is always a fun time. The proceeds from the show go to charity, which is great as well.”

The Arbor Christmas show raises about $2000 each year for the Arbor Foundation, which was started by Jon’s family and mainly benefits The Life Raft Group, a support group for people diagnosed with GIST.

Though founders want anyone who desires to be able to attend and enjoy the show, Maier said they put the work in annually for one main purpose that doesn’t call for plans to ever expand or evolve.

“It’s basically like a Christmas party for our friends and family, so we want it to be that above everything else,” he says. “We feel like everybody can enjoy it no matter what, but that’s basically why we do it every year. It’s kind of like our tradition.”

But someday, the hope is that someday the new generation will take over and help keep the Arbor Christmas Show tradition alive. They don’t expect it to happen, but providing a sense of community, and a little Christmas spirit, can go a long way.

“For me, it just seems crazy that when we first started doing this I was 19 years old, in college, pretty young and dumb in general,” adds Adam Montague. “To think about how we’re still doing this 15 years later, that this is part of an annual tradition for my family now … They look forward to it, they listen to the CDs. For them, these are Christmas carols. They put on the comp every year and listen to them. This is built into their expectations. This is the holiday music that they’re growing up with in a way. They listen to that Chipmunks song over and over again, too.”

The 15th Annual Arbor Christmas Show will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 22. A $10 donation includes the show, compilation CD and complimentary food and drink. The compilation album will be available for free download here on Dec. 22.

Cover art for the Arbor Christmas 15 compilation, out digitally on Monday December 22nd
Cover art for the Arbor Christmas 15 compilation, out digitally on Monday December 22nd

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